In the Mood for Advice? Building Confidence with the Present Subjunctive

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FLHS World Languages Team: Greta Gieseke, Hillary Biles, Kathy Grant, T. J. Heupel, Alex Klenz, Suzanne Lea, Rebecca Wittig

One of the challenges in language teaching is managing expectations for each of the modalities (speaking, listening, reading, writing). As students progress from novice to expert in a second language, teachers work to appropriately increase expectations for independent use of the language and establish incremental milestones students should reach on the road to proficiency.

Listening and speaking are often the most intimidating modalities for students. Students hear words in the target language and the then have to "see" these words in their mind before they can attempt to interpret meaning. Unfortunately, students often give up before reaching this stage of development. For example, many hear Spanish and quickly stop listening if they don’t immediately understand.

Our world languages team has been tackling this problem for several years. Most recently, the team planned a research lesson for a Spanish 3 class focused on giving and receiving advice while using the present subjunctive.

What is the Present Subjunctive?

It’s all about “mood.” Up until this time, students learn about verb tenses. They learn how verb-endings in Spanish reveal WHO does something and WHEN the action occurs. With the subjunctive, the verb also indicates the MOOD of the action. This is common in Spanish but it’s difficult for English speakers to grasp, because the subjunctive plays a less prominent role in English. It appears in more formal contexts when we use verbs or expressions that suggest something is important or recommended. (e.g., It is vital that they be warned of the consequences).

In Spanish, the subjunctive is formed by changing the ending to the verb stem. For example the present indicative for “I drink” is “yo bebo.” The present subjunctive is formed by taking the stem (beb-) and adding a new ending (beba). *The rules for these endings change depending on the verb type and the subject (1st, 2nd, 3rd person, etc).

Since the subjunctive is used for recommendations and suggestions it’s particularly useful for giving and receiving advice. For example:

Mi doctor recomienda que beba más agua.

My doctor recommends I drink more water.

Matchmaking and Giving Advice

To help students gain confidence with giving and receiving advice in the subjunctive, the FL team designed the following “storyline” of lesson activities:

  1. Warm-up: pre-assessment of confidence level

  2. Identifying logical/ illogical advice (bueno/malo) - Noting the use of subjunctive

  3. “Matchmaker” speaking activity: match advice with a problem by speaking in Spanish.

  4. Slideshow activity: Provide various examples of media presenting problems. Ask students to complete a phrase, summarize a scenario, or give advice using whiteboards.

  5. Collect evidence: post-assessment

The teachers anticipated the “matchmaker activity” (segment #3 above) would be the pivotal moment of this lesson. At this stage, students were asked to speak in Spanish and match advice with problems without independently generating language. The segment was designed to build students’ confidence and scaffold their proficiency with advice-giving phrases and grammar (the subjunctive). This prepared them for the final “slide-show activity” where students demonstrated comprehension by summarizing scenarios and generated their own language for advice based on new problems presented in the slides.

Click here to watch a series of video excerpts from lesson segments #2 (bueno/malo), #3 (matchmaker), and #4 (whiteboard activity with slideshow).

Student Results

At the conclusion of the lesson, all three students we interviewed and at least half of the students from the pre-post assessment reported greater confidence in communicating advice.

Click here to watch interview responses from several Spanish 3 students.

Students also performed better than anticipated on the lesson assessment, giving reasonable answers for fill-in-the-blank questions (90%), correctly summarizing scenarios read in Spanish (70%), and providing advice in the subjunctive after listening to a problem in Spanish (80%).  (See evidence tally below.)

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Lesson Reflections

Nurturing Student Confidence. The students had several opportunities to explore the language and experience success in this lesson. This helped boost their confidence and prepared them for each successive activity with increasing cognitive demand and use of the target language. At the same time, addressing student confidence in listening is a process. Students will need continued opportunities to experience success over time.

Improving Listening Comprehension. Throughout this lesson, students had multiple opportunities to practice listening for subjunctive in low risk situations, reducing the affective filter. Reading new vocabulary and phrases in advance enabled students to better visualize those words during listening activities. Students also benefited from practice with summarizing and interpreting. In the words of one student, this helped them “not to read word for word, but for overall summary” and to grasp the gist of each scenario. Even if they could not catch every word, they could at least identify some details and not feel completely lost.

Responding in Spanish. In their written responses, most students demonstrated good understanding of the problems presented and provided sensible advice using the subjunctive. They made tangible progress in listening to, summarizing, and writing down advice in Spanish. Speaking, on the other hand, remained a challenge for many students. During the matching activity, for example, several students held up their slips of paper for others to read, rather than making an effort to practice speaking in Spanish. Building confidence in listening and writing often precedes confidence in speaking. The teachers can build on this success with listening comprehension and gradually increase the rigor and demand for oral communication in future lessons. Teachers can also use future research lessons to study and explore ways of minimizing use of English or written Spanish during oral language activities.

Preparation Matters

Perhaps the most distinguishing factor of this lesson was the careful thought teachers invested in designing scaffolded opportunities for listening and practice. Students identified the matchmaking activity, the rules for placement and use of the subjunctive, and the multiple opportunities for practice as instrumental levers that boosted understanding. Instead of doing three or four different activities just to keep students’ attention, each phase of the lesson prepared students for the next more difficult phase and advanced students toward a specific learning goal.

This kind of preparation and thoughtful progression of complexity can make or break a student’s confidence and willingness to actively engage in the acquisition process. The lesson reminds us that preparation matters. Students are the benefactors when they feel prepared to tackle challenging problems and tasks.